‘Locked and loaded’: Trump’s options in a war with N. Korea
Pentagon’s plans for escalation have been in place since 1953
President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that U.S. military plans are “locked and loaded” and ready to go “should North Korea act unwisely.” In fact, the Pentagon has had detailed plans in place for another conflict since the first Korean War ended in 1953.
“The military has planned for the worst case for decades,” said David Maxwell, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and a retired Army colonel who served five tours in South Korea.
While the Pentagon never reveals its plans and the many updates it has made over the past 64 years, analysts say there are several broad options:
The United States might initially try to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles in a first strike, but any action could easily escalate into a ground, air and sea war that would lead to tens of thousands of casualties — even millions if nuclear weapons were used.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said a war on the Korean Peninsula would be “catastrophic,” which is why he said the main focus remains on diplomacy to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.
If the U.S. military were to strike first, it might target North Korea’s missile sites and nuclear processing plants. The problem: U.S. intelligence agencies might not know where all of them are, and some could be in hardened bunkers, Maxwell said.
The United States might also attempt a more limited strike on railroad lines or ports that would send a message, said Dean Cheng, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
Another limited option would be a cyber strike that could take down the country’s power grid.
North Korea could devastate South Korea with an array of conventional artillery and rockets fired from just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two and aimed at Seoul — South Korea’s capital.
The U.S. and its South Korean allies would try to destroy those weapons as soon as it became clear Seoul might be threatened. That would likely require U.S. and South Korean aircraft plus cruise missiles fired from American ships.
Any large conflict on the Korean Peninsula would draw in ground forces. It’s a formidable place to fight, with mountains, dense woods, and populated cities and towns. Winters can be brutally cold in the mountains.
The United States has about 28,000 service members based in South Korea and could deploy thousands more.
The bulk of the ground force, however would be South Korean, Maxwell said. The South Koreans have a military of about 650,000 and can mobilize more than 1 million.
They are generally better trained and equipped than the larger North Korean military, which has 1.2 million in its active force, one of the world’s largest.
Fighting that involves infantry and tanks is hard to predict, but it surely would be brutal and bloody. Millions of civilians would be at risk.
U.S. ships might participate in a blockade of North Korea to further isolate the country in event of war and prevent it from importing weapons and supplies.
But a blockade might anger China, North Korea’s closest ally and largest trading partner. During the 1950-53 Korean War, China entered on the side of North Korea, helping to push back U.S. and South Korean forces at a critical point.
It’s not clear China would get involved this time. It prefers to avoid a war on the peninsula altogether and would be reluctant to help North Korea unless Beijing thought its own borders were threatened.
Trump almost certainly would not go nuclear in a pre-emptive move.
“The U.S. is very anxious to avoid the first use of nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Bennett, an analyst at RAND Corp.
But if North Korea were to attack a regional ally with a nuclear weapon, Trump could order a retaliatory nuclear strike without prior approval from Congress.